WTF Wednesday: Bait and Switch

It’s a fact of life that vanity/subsidy presses exist. It’s also a fact of life that some authors, desperate to have their book in their hot little hands, will pay for publication. And in some cases, that’s the best decision the author could make, because the author’s goal isn’t to make a career out of writing.

Here are a couple of scenarios in which I think authors who self-published made a right decision:

1) The 80yo woman I met at an RWA chapter meeting who was hand-selling her vanity-published romance novel. Yeah, she could have gone through the traditional channels to try to get it published, but it was set in an odd time period/place for the traditional markets and, let’s face it, at her age, she’d probably be dead before it ever saw a bookshelf. She wanted to have her book published and she didn’t mind selling it herself. She knew what she was getting into, and she was pleased with the result because she had the right expectations.

2) My SIL wants to write a children’s book about her experiences growing up with a significant disability. This would be a hard sale in the traditional market AND the main reason she wants to do it is to gift the book to the hospital that did her surgeries pro bono. She’s not looking to make money from it, but looking to “give back” for something that was done for her. Given her desires and expectations, a vanity-publisher looks like the best/most likely option.

But now, along comes Harlequin with a new vanity publishing venture called Harlequin Horizons. If you haven’t already encountered the kerfuffle that’s ensued in Romancelandia over this, you haven’t been paying attention or your Internet has been down for a couple of days. The primary thread on the topic can be found over at Smart Bitches, so if you have a few hours to invest, feel free to hop on over there and read the 200+ comments.

I’m very troubled by this, but not because I think Harlequin might be diluting its brand or because there’s anything inherently wrong with a traditional publishing house holding an interest in a vanity publishing house. (Random House has a 49% share of Xlibris, and I see no issues with that.) It’s that Harlequin is playing a bait-and-switch on aspiring authors, and they are doing it in such a blatant fashion, as if they think it’s business as usual.

But it is NOT business as usual for reputable publishing houses to refer authors to their vanity publishing arm in their form rejection letters. Yet this is precisely what Harlequin is apparently planning to do.

Let’s be clear here…an agent who refers an author to a vanity house for publication and receives a cut of the profit if said author ends up publishing there is considered a sleaze. RWA will not recognize said agent as reputable and will not allow him/her to schedule pitches at conferences, etc.

And yet, this is EXACTLY what Harlequin is proposing to do–funnel rejected manuscripts to a vanity publisher from which it gets a cut of the profits. (It is worth noting here that Random House, while owning 49% of Xlibris, does NOT mention or recommend Xlibris in their rejection letters. Why not? Because it’s always been considered unethical to do so. And it should, in my never to be humble opinion, remain that way.)


And then, to add insult to injury, the Harlequin Horizons site makes a lot of vague promises about how publishing with it will help authors achieve their dreams of being picked up by Harlequin’s traditional publishing arm. It suggests Harlequin will be “mining” Horizons for bestsellers to bring them over into their traditional lines. This is akin to the NBA starting a “pay-to-play” league for basketball hopefuls and tell them they’ll be “scouting” this league for new stars and that said players will have a better shot at making the big time than those who go through the regular slush pile (i.e., colleges, where players who are actually good enough to go onto the NBA typically pick up scholarships AND an education). It’s flat-out deceptive, not because there’s NO chance that it will happen, but because the chances it will are as ridiculously tiny as that the next Michael Jordan would have to pay the NBA for an audition.

Now, I know there are plenty of people out there who subscribe to the “buyer beware” model and think that this is all just fine and dandy. Harlequin is in business to make money and this is just another avenue of revenue for them. It’s up to authors to know what they’re getting into and be savvy.

I agree with that to a large extent. I do think it’s up to authors to do their homework and understand what, exactly, they’re signing up for.

But by the same token, I am disappointed in Harlequin. I have always considered them to be one of the most reputable, honest, and author-focused houses out there. For years, their website has been a reliable source of information about the busines and the craft of writing, and they have helped so many authors achieve their dreams for real. To now see them now embrace a model that involves selling false ones (and at very high prices) makes me more than a little sick to my stomach.

So, please, Harlequin, invest in a vanity publisher if you must, but please, don’t weaken your reputation as one of the most ethical, author-friendly houses out there. I have loved you for so long for your commitment to doing the right thing by authors, both those you publish and those you reject. Please don’t change.

WTF Wednesday: Diversity, Where Art Thou?

Yesterday, Dear Author posted an anonymous guest post on the subject of cultural appropriation. In it, the writer lamented the dearth of non-white protagonists in romance, and the tendency for those stories which do feature unusual locations (India, the Middle East, etc.) to have white protagonists, too. A long, interesting thread of comments has ensued (last time I looked, there were 250+ comments), including one from author Jade Lee, whose Blaze historical, The Concubine, was set in ancient China and featured Chinese protagonists but which, despite positive reviews, failed to sell as well as Harlequin would have liked. Jade will continue to write for Harlequin, but going forward, her books will feature white protagonists and her historicals will be set in Regency England.

So, given everything that’s already been said in the thread at Dear Author, what could I possibly have to add? Only this: the lack of diversity in romance/publishing1 isn’t limited to the race/ethnicity of the main characters. It’s also evident in other facets of the sorts of books that get picked up for publication.

I’m going to give a concrete example here. I have a proposal out with an editor for a book that’s set in Prohibition Era Chicago. I like to say it’s Dashiell Hammett meets Lora Leigh. I think it’s a great premise for a book and the writing is solid. But I’m also a realist. There isn’t much of a market for Prohibition Era romantic suspense. In fact, there probably isn’t a market for it at all. This means that, for the publisher to pick up my book for publication is a big risk. Bigger than, say, buying a wonderfully well-written Regency era romance by another author. And believe me, there are plenty of wonderfully well-written Regencies out there for publishers to choose from. My proposal isn’t competing for publishing space with OTHER Prohibition Era romances, but with other historical romances set in periods and places that are tried and true, that publishers KNOW have an opportunity to sell well.

Now, many people, when I mention this book, say, “Oh, I’d LOVE to read that. It sounds great. It’s so different.” But, that’s the rub. No matter how great it might be, different isn’t good when it means the publisher isn’t sure the book can sell. Jade mentioned that Harlequin put a significant marketing effort behind The Concubine, but it just wasn’t enough to propel readers to step outside their comfort zone and buy it. (I’m sorry I didn’t buy it, although the reason wasn’t because of the setting or race of the characters, but because I don’t buy/read category romances. In retrospect, I wish I’d stepped outside my comfort zone for that book.)

My agent and I discussed this book and another project I’m working on yesterday and agreed that we probably won’t pursue taking it out elsewhere because the new project is simply more marketable. It has a time and place setting that publishers like (Victorian England), a paranormal element that’s hot and popular, and an interesting high concept. That’s what publishers are looking for right now, so that’s what I’m trying to write–books that will sell.

Quite honestly, that means being “different” and pushing the boundaries just isn’t on my agenda. As a writer, I want to write books people will read. That means writing books publishers will buy, publish, and promote. And in this day and age, that means books that fit within the defined categories that already exist. Sure, there’s always going to be that ONE writer who sells the “really different” book and kicks off a whole new subgenre. But the reality is, that writer probably won’t be me. It probably won’t even be you if you’re a debut or midlist author looking for a slot in this environment. Probably, the breakout, different book is going to come from a well established author who’s already hit the lists a time or two and has a bankable name for the publisher to hang its marketing hat on.

The rest of us have to be different in very small, very careful ways if we want to sell. We have to come up with a “big” premise that publishers believe they can “lead” with (publishers don’t want to buy midlist books anymore; they want incipient bestsellers).

So, bottom line, if anything, the homogenization of romance is going to become more pronounced over time rather than less so. Established authors who have made a stab at increasing diversity are being asked to write “safer” books for their new contrats. (Jade Lee isn’t the only published author I’ve heard of who’s been asked to do this. It’s perfectly understandable, too. If a publisher has an author they believe has great talent, they will want her to write a book that has the best opportunity to sell to a lot of readers. Why “waste” her abilitites on books with a “niche” market?) New authors are going to be bought because their books “fit” into the already defined categories with broad sales potential. And the midlist authors, whose books might be the most likely to be “different” because the sales expectations aren’t huge, will be slowly winnowed away.

But the thing is, it’s not the job of publishers to fix the culture or educate the populace. Their job is to publish books that entertain enough readers to produce a profit for the publishing house. If readers really WANTED these different books in large numbers, I believe we’d be getting them. The fact that publishers have taken risks on books that don’t fit the defined categories and they generally don’t do well is evidence to me that most readers want historicals featuring white Regency era England lords and ladies and paranormals featuring vampires/werewolves/demons, and so on.

If that ISN’T what you want as a reader…stop buying them. You can’t buy the books that aren’t there, but if you stop buying the ones that are (perhaps taking your dollars to epublishers or small presses that do offer the kinds of stories you want), perhaps that will induce the same scramble in the NY publishing industry that happened a few years back when they realized erotic romance was a market they could make money on. Maybe the same efforts will be made to sign authors from epublishing who write outside the box again.

In the meantime, we’re going to keep getting what we’re buying. And yes, I’m guilty, because I’m buying (and writing) those homogenized romances.

1When I say publishing in this post, please think “mainstream, print, NY publishing.” There is room for a great deal more diversity in epublishing, but let’s face it, the majority of book readers are still print readers, and saying there’s diversity in ebooks if you’ll only go find them is like saying there’s diversity in TV if only you’ll get expanded cable. Not everyone wants to go there.

WTF Wednesday: Enough Rubbernecking, Already!

This is one of those posts in which I’m going to rail against a phenomenon while engaging in said phenomenon. Yeah, I know, hypocritical, but I don’t know how to express my annoyance with this cultural trend without mentioning the most recent incident that has sparked my irritation.

If you haven’t guessed already, I’m talking about the attention the media has been giving to the “Balloon Boy” family. For the past three days, there has been at least one article and/or cartoon in both the local papers to which I subscribe about the Heenes and their (insert outraged adjective of your choice here) attempt to gain fame and fortune by claiming their young son had been carried away by an experimental balloon they were building in their backyard. The story gained national media attention when the situation was in progress, so much so that it became a trending topic on Twitter (and was still one yesterday, though I’m not sure it still is today).1

Any way you slice it, the Heenes’ behavior was reprehensible. But the constant hashing and rehashing of what they did and why and how horrible/misguided/stupid/self-centered they are makes me want to tear my hair out. It’s a trainwreck, but people, it’s WORKING for them. They wanted to famous. And now, they are. And they will be as long as the media and the public succumb to the fascination to rubberneck and dissect and criticize their actions.

In other words, we have to STOP LOOKING at behaviors we don’t, as a society, want to encourage. Just as we have to stop looking at Octomom, whose crushingly selfish and stupid decision to get pregnant via IVF when she already had six kids she couldn’t support has a resulted in her being rewarded with a her own reality TV show. Yeah, that’s the way to demonstrate our disapproval. (And I would put money on the theory that when she found out she was carrying 8 embryos, Octomom saw a large payday in her future. Just as the Heenes do now.)

I have never been a fan of reality TV. Oh, I like some shows that I suppose fall vaguely into the category of reality TV (Mythbusters, Man vs. Wild, Man vs. Food) , but these are shows with defined “stars” who have a particular expertise. By contrast, shows like Wife Swap (which I gather the Heenes have been on twice), Jon and Kate Plus 8 (shudder; a trainwreck I truly have NO interest in whatsoever), and the like seem to me to prey on people’s desire for celebrity at any cost. And it’s the fact that we as a culture are so fascinated by this stuff that causes people like the Heenes to bother staging a hoax in the first place.

So before we judge the Heenes too harshly, I think we should all take a good look in the mirror. Because we’re all complicit.

1I have to admit, I paid very little attention to the balloon boy story as it unfolded. I saw a few tweets in my feed, but once I heard no one could actually confirm that the boy was in the balloon, I was 99% sure it was a hoax. Why? Because no parent would leave a young child unattended in the vicinity of a balloon with enough lift to actually carry him/her away. (I suppose one should never say never, because there might actually be parents that stupid/careless, but people who would spend the time and energy to BUILD a balloon of that nature seem to me, by definition, to be a little too smart for that.)

When the kid was found FIVE HOURS LATER in the garage, I was SURE it was a hoax. I’m a parent, and there is NO WAY IN HELL any of my kids could/would hide from me for that long anywhere on my premises. When the authorities initially claimed there was no evidence it was a hoax, I thought they must be the most gullible law enforcement officials on the planet.

WTF Wednesday: The Only Honest Reviews Cost the Reviewer Money

Yes, yes, I know it’s only Monday. But sometimes, WTF Wednesday comes early. Think of it as like Christmas in July :).

This week’s early WTF Wednesday is brought to you by the FTC (Federal Trade Commission). By now, you’ve probably heard about this strange new set of guidelines, which basically requires bloggers who review books they have received for free (or, apparently, even books they paid for but to which they provide an Amazon link for purchase) to disclose their “financial” relationship with the publisher/author/seller of said book. Well, at least if they say nice things about the book.

I won’t go into a lengthy explanation of the rule here, because others have already done so. Instead, I simply point you to the post that made me drop my jaw in disbelief–an overview of a discussion with Richard Cleland of the FTC, explaining why bloggers who don’t actually get paid to review books should be subject to a different standard than those who are paid to do reviews by newspapers, magazines, etc. I’ll wait for you to get back if you haven’t already read it, because it is seriously WTF-inducing.

Back? Picked your jaw up off the floor yet?

Okay, so here was the first thing that got my undies in a twist (I’m not sure what gets yours; there’s plenty of grist for the mill): Cleland believes that when a blogger receives a free copy of a book to read, there is an “expectation” on the part of the party providing the book that the review will be positive in nature. Apparently, then, the free book is “payment” for a service being rendered by the blogger–to wit, an endorsement of the product.

Except I don’t know ANY authors who believe this. Every author I’ve ever known who has sent out review copies of her book to bloggers has worried whether the resulting review would be positive or negative (or whether there would be a review at all). And in fact, in many cases, there IS no review. Sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches can’t possibly read and review all the books they receive–the people doing the reviews can’t read that fast or live that long. And I’ve sent out plenty of copies of Behind the Red Door to reviewers who NEVER reviewed them, one way or the other. Guess what? I don’t expect them back. They aren’t payment for a service–they’re a gift, plain and simple. There’s nothing I can do TO get them back, even if I wanted to, so the notion that the book is a payment strikes me as ludicrous. It’s only payment if you don’t get it until you do the work…but that’s pretty hard to manage in the case of book reviews.

But what troubles me even more about this rule isn’t that the FTC is asking book bloggers to disclose their “sponsorship” by authors/publishers who send them free books for review. It’s that they’re exempting the folks who really DO get sponsorship (and lots of it) from publishers and authors from the rule. You see, apparently, readers of magazines like Romantic Times or other “traditional” book review media (including the booksellers themselves) are somehow aware that those publications’ endorsements of the products reviewed in them are, by definition, NOT THE REVIEWER’S HONEST OPINION.

Um, wow. Thanks for saying what I knew all along–we can’t trust the reviews of paid media because, hey, they’re being paid for it! (And yes, I believe that WHICH books are reviewed/recommended in traditional media is strongly influenced by money. I don’t mean that publishers are paying for good reviews/recommendations per se, but I do believe that publishers DRIVE which books get attention with their advertising dollars, and that translates into greater attention to those books by reviewers.)

Okay, so now the book bloggers who don’t actually make a living at reviewing books are being asked to disclose the fact that they received a book for free (with a WHOPPING value of, what, $8 for an mmpb, $15 for a trade, and $25 for a hardcover) because I MIGHT believe their review is an honest expression of their opinion of the book. Well, heaven forfend!

To me, the irony is that I think when people read a review in the New York Times or on Publisher’s Weekly, I’m betting that for the most part, they actually think they’re reading the revewier’s honest opinion, even though the reviewer is getting paid to do the review. If we DIDN’T believe that when reading a review, regardless of the medium, why would we bother at all?

And of course, this doesn’t even get into the whole free speech thing. If I love a book and want to recommend it to my friends, how I came by it is irrelevant. I should be able to say what I want about it.

Frankly, I’m stunned by this. Even more so that this is the FTC under my president. What gives?

WTF Wednesday: Touchy, Aren’t We?

I’m not the only person to notice and comment on this by a long shot, and I’m sure I won’t be the last (in fact, I think there’s a report on the topic on this afternoon’s All Things Considered on NPR), but wow, we’re all a little touchy lately, aren’t we? The number of incidents involving celebrities, athletes, and politicians popping off at little or no provocation is legion (and I won’t reiterate them here on the grounds that they don’t need anymore publicity for bad behavior than they’ve already gotten). And then there’s the general undertone of…sorry, I can’t think of any word other than “bitchiness”, despite the sexist connotations…that constantly seems to be flaring up in Romancelandia. Again, I don’t think I need to cite specific incidents for folks to know what I’m referring to.

The thing is, I’m not here to castigate anyone for this or decry the lack of civility in the modern world. Because, darn it, I have to count myself among the cranky pop-off’ers. Honesty forces me to admit that the tone of this blog has not been exactly upbeat and lovey-dovey of late. Now, I’m not attempting to excuse bad behavior, either, and I would like to think I haven’t engaged in any actual bad behavior remotely like some of what I’ve seen/heard about in the news lately, but I am wondering if this malady is deeper than individual circumstances.

See, I’m grumpy about a lot of things publishing and writing related–some of them things I can control (like whether I’m actually writing anything) and others I can’t (whether there’s anyone willing to buy the anything I write)–but I’m starting to suspect that my grumpiness is magnified by everything that’s going on around me. The whole world seems to be in a state of perpetual pugnacity. Everyone is just itching for a fight (to quote Michael Feldman), whether it’s over “death panels” or the president’s citizenship status or a certain Twitter hashtag that shall remain nameless.

It’s pretty easy to suspect that a big part of the reason for this constant underlying irritation is anxiety. With the economy still in such a state of upheaval, people are just plain worried. Those who’ve lost their jobs are worried about finding new ones. Those who haven’t lost them are afraid they might. And then there’s the overall pace of technological and social change, everything from the rise of digital media to same-sex marriage. Even those of us who are all in favor of progress are a little knocked on our ears by the sheer instability of things.

So, now that I’ve realized I’m more than a little touchy (and guilty of expressing it), I’ve decided I have to take some steps toward positive thinking. Not because it will make better things happen, mind you (I don’t believe in the power of positive thinking in quite that way), but because it will make me feel better. Because being cranky really sucks.

What about you? Feeling touchy lately? Any advice for handling one’s irritation in a positive way?

P.S. I don’t believe the president calling a certain celebrity a “jackass” helps to improve the tenor of the discussion.

WTF Wednesday: Ten Things I Hate About You

My maudlin little post yesterday about knowing when to throw in the towel (I still don’t know when that is, lol) garnered this response from an author who’d like to remain anonymous (for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand when you read it).

Being a writer is a little like being a crack addict—or like being in love with an abusive spouse that you just can’t find the balls to walk away from. Over the last few months I’ve received more than a few rejections. Matter of fact, I haven’t sold for quite some time, and not for a lack of trying. I realize that the market is tighter than ever and selling is harder than ever; I am far from naive about the publishing business—and maybe that’s the real problem. But after a spate of recent rejections I found myself wondering if, to be blunt, I was just writing too smart, putting too much thought and care into the proposals I was crafting.

“Too smart” is probably not the right phrase. Maybe the word I’m looking for is complex, as in “too complex” or simpler as in “simpler, more basic storylines” or even trope as in “writing more to trope and trying less to be unique and truly creative”. Because you see, even when I did “the same but different”, as in the same as what everyone else is writing but different, apparently my different was too different.

And when one sees people selling and selling… and selling and publishing and one knows they can write rings around those who not only continue to sell, but end up with six, seven, even eight books out in a year, it does make one wonder. Especially when you receive rejections from an editor who just doesn’t like your voice or your writing and you’ve read some of the books this editor has published and to be frank, they suck. They’re mediocre—at best—and either this writer can’t write or this editor can’t edit. If the authors of those books had been your critique partners, you would have kicked the manuscript back to them and told them to start again because holy fucking hell, that was some nasty vile shit. Not that I would ever say that to any of my critique partners because they’re all damned fine writers.

And when your critique partner tells you that you write better than a well-known NYT bestselling author, it makes you stop and ask, “What am I doing wrong then that I can’t sell another book?”

To be frank, it’s demoralizing.

Time and time again, I find myself wondering why I don’t quit and sadly, the only answer I can come up with is this one: sticking with it might be demoralizing but quitting would be humiliating.

I hate myself for not having the guts to quit, for not having the balls to yank down my pants and show you the moons of my ass while lifting both my middle fingers and then walk away—forever;

I hate myself for loving what I do so much that I’m willing to take beating after beating after beating.

I hate myself for the bitter taste of pride in my mouth.

I hate this business that can get away with paying authors advances that are no higher than when writers like Nora Roberts started out 25 plus years ago. Yeah, there are houses out there paying 2000.00/book advances, 3000.00/book advances, 4000.00/book advances and writers saying yes. We should all be ashamed for saying yes. We should all be ashamed for bending over and saying, “stick it to me and don’t bother with the lube!”

I hate this business because the amount of money you’re paid per book directly ties into the amount of promotional love you get from your publisher. If you took that $2000.00 a book deal, you’re fucked. All the promo is on you and that measly-ass two grand they paid you…there is nothing and I mean not a fucking thing you can do with that two grand that will get you noticed. Instead, what you should do with that two grand is take your kids to Disney World. For real. The Magic Kingdom makes everything better.

I hate this business because there are only two major book chains left in the U. S. and publishers have to pay booksellers for premium space in their stores.

I hate this business because one of the most powerful people in publishing is the head buyer for a major book chain.

I hate this business because retailers…OMFG RETAILERS have the power to change a cover or a title. People I am not making this shit up! And it is not right! Not right at all!

I hate this business because, more often than not, it’s not about what’s good or even what’s great, it’s about what’s marketable and what we can sell the most of. RIP CHICK LIT.

I hate this business because publishers pay booksellers to promote books that sell instead of letting booksellers promote books they love or books that they feel need or deserve a little pimpage. Am I the only one who sees the irony in that? Sure it’s a bookseller’s job and a publisher’s job to make a profit but books that sell are going to sell regardless. What about the books that don’t sell? What about the books that get no attention? I mean, what’s the point of pimping Danielle Steele when she’s got a built-in following? Yes I’m thinking of a recent book-pimpage video I watched)

And honestly, when’s the last time you bought Danielle Steele? Right. You’re not her target audience; your grandmother is.

I hate this business because for many writers, it’s about quantity not quality.

I hate this business because even after you make the New York Times, publishers still aren’t satisfied. They want more and more and more. Congratulations, your last book sold a million copies and you made the NYT. Next time you need to sell 1.25 million and you need to hit higher on the list—and oh yeah, stay on the list longer.

You want to know who the true vampires are? The motherfuckers who look at profit and loss and bottom lines and then turn around and fire damned fine editors because…they can get two, or maybe even three, for the price of one. The assholes who have turned publishing into…Hollywood. You know…that place where imagination used to reign supreme and classics like ET and Star Wars were made. That place where they’re now so desperate for movie ideas, they’re pillaging all the really bad horror movies of the 70’s and 80’s.

A final word of caution: To all you aspiring writers out there who are just dying to break into New York publishing, who think you’d sell your soul for a book deal, or even an agent, who scoff at people who try to tell you it’s no better on the other side of the fence. I know you think you’re smarter and more clever and more educated about publishing that many of those who went before you, and that when you sell, it will be different, better somehow, but the cold hard mother fucking truth is, it won’t. You’ll be as fucked as the rest of us. No wonder Hemingway was an alcoholic.

‘Scuse me while I go shoot up.

WTF Wednesday: What Is It With Dark?

My dear friend and CP, Amie Stuart, received a rejection today from a major publishing house on a “dark” paranormal. The editor’s reason for rejecting it? The tone felt “too light” for her tastes. Now, I can’t tell you anything about the proposal (which I’ve read large chunks of) because I can’t give away Amie’s story idea, but here’s the funny thing: a different editor rejected the same manuscript not too long ago because it was “too dark.”


Of course, this just points out what we already know–that reading is subjective, and editors are just as incapable of having completely objective reactions to books as anyone else. One editor’s too dark is another editor’s too light. And as an author, you really just have to write the book YOUR WAY and not try to second-guess. That’s really hard to do, though, especially when you get so much conflicting feedback.

But the real topic of my post today isn’t rejections or subjectivity so much as it is–what gives with DARK these days? Everywhere I turn, it seems editors want “dark” (usually “dark and sexy” but notice the dark comes first.) And they don’t just want it in paranormal, but also in historical, romantic suspense, etc. Now, I do see books coming out now that are lighter (Tessa Dare’s wonderful trilogy from Ballantine comes to mind, as well as Victoria Dahl’s fun contemporary series with HQN), but it does seem to me that editors right now are looking for stories that I, at least, suspect I would find depressing and unreadable.

To me, dark is fine, but it needs to be balanced wit and humor. When it comes to books with dark, tormented characters and plots, I don’t mind a bit of weight, but I still want it to be fun to read. (IMO, Amie’s book is exactly the right mix of dark/tormented and wry/twisted humor.) And if there’s no wit or humor in it–if there isn’t SOME lightness–then it’s not fun. After all, even Hamlet and King Lear, among the darkest stories ever written, have moments of comic relief.

Mind you, I’m not actually saying that none of the “dark” books editors are buying have moments of wit and humor. What I wonder is why there’s such a passion for dark at all? We’re living in difficult times, surrounded by real crises and real danger. I thought one of the reasons romance was bucking the downward trend in book sales is that romance offers a guaranteed “feel-good” read.

Yet it seems to me that most of the dark romances I’ve read lately DON’T make me feel good at the end. There may be an HEA, but all too often, I’m left wishing the heroine (or hero in some cases) would run as far and fast as possible from the character who is supposed to be his/her perfect mate. And even if I like the characters and want them to live HEA, the story leading up to that ending can be too difficult/painful for me to feel like I had a good time reading the book.

Now, of course, I’m only one reader (and one writer). Perhaps there’s something about very dark stories that end happily that a large proportion of romance readers finds particularly satisfying. I simply find it perplexing, in the current climate, that lighter romantic comedies aren’t more sought after/fashionable. I know I want to escape the darkness of our times, not immerse myself deeper in it, and I’m looking for romances that give me pleasure all the way through. (That doesn’t mean there’s not conflict or danger or heart-wrenching moments, but I want to ENJOY those moments. Does that even make sense, lol?)

So please, New York, give me more of the fun and less of the torture. Pretty please?

WTF Wednesday: Erotic Romance is NOT a Subgenre

A few months ago, I entered an RWA chapter contest that permitted entries from both published and unpublished authors, provided the manuscript itself was not published. (No, I’m not going to tell you which contest it was.) I was curious to see how these stories would play, but also figured I should enter the category which had an editor I’d be interested in getting the manuscripts in front of should I final.

To that end, I entered the historical category rather than erotica, despite the fact that there are sex scenes in the first chapter of both manuscripts. I knew that was a gamble, but both manuscripts were firmly set in historical periods and, as such, fit in the historical category as well as or better than they fit in erotica.1

Fast forward to yesterday, when I received my score sheets. I already knew I hadn’t made the final round, and I was fine with that. I also expected the early sex to be an issue for the judges, but not as big an issue as it was. My scores on one manuscript were 74 and 68 (of 100). On the other, 69 and 59. Ouch!

But the kicker is that all of the judges, in one way or another, indicated they would have scored higher if I had entered erotica, not historical. WTF? One story is set in 1817, the other in 1929. Both are romances set in a historical time period, ergo, regardless of the sexual content, they are historical romances. This means they were not entered in the wrong category and therefore, should not have been scored “down” for content that might have met the criteria of a different category.

For a long time, I’ve waffled on whether or not adding an erotic romance category to the RITAs would be a good thing. In theory, I thought it would be a good idea since it would give authors more options when it came to determining which category their book best belonged in. RWA has long maintained, however, that the criteria for defining a romance as “erotic” is simply too slippery and could lead to more problems than it solves. (The outcome of Dear Author’s poll last week on the question of what constitutes erotic romance provides, to me, confirmation of the “slipperiness” of the criteria. The most popular answer was “any romance that is really sexed up.” Okay, great. Define “sexed up.” Anyone?)

The outcome of this contest has pretty well convinced me that RWA has it right. Erotic romance isn’t a subgenre; it’s a heat level. And all subgenres (with the exception of Inspirational, which I do think has specific expectations that are distinct from other subgenres) can accommodate all heat levels, from sweet to scorching. A romance set in 1825 is a historical romance, while one set in 2009 is a contemporary. Neither the role sexual encounters play in that romance nor the frankness of the language used has any bearing on whether the book is identifiably historical or identifiably contemporary. If the book fits the definition of the category, it does, even if it also happens to fit (in the judge’s opinion) the definition of another category.

The problem is that when a category for erotic romances/erotica exists in any particular contest, the judges then feel free to second-guess and penalize the author for entering a book which is otherwise clearly suited to the parameters of the category simply because it has strong sexual language and content. Basically, this means they are importing subjective opinions about what heat level is acceptable in a romance of a particular type (be it contemporary, paranormal, historical) when that is nowhere objectively defined in the scoring or the category descriptions provided by the contest coordinators. True, there may be more contest coordintors could do to instruct their judges NOT to score manuscripts/books based on heat level, but the reality, I think, is that they’ll do it anyway, especially if an erotica/ER category exists. Moreover, in the RITA, where scores are simply numeric with no comments, authors will never even KNOW they were dinged for erotic content unless the judge actually goes so far as to state the book was entered in the wrong category.

So, what do you think? Is “erotic romance” a separate, definable category? If it is, how would you define it? And do you think I’ll ever enter another contest again ;)?

1In my opinion, erotica is distinct from erotic romance. Erotica does not follow the romance genre requirement to focus on the development of a romantic relationship nor does it have to resolve in an HEA or HFN ending for the protagonists. Erotica can end UNhappily. Genre romance, and therefore any romance with erotic contact, canNOT. If I am writing a story that focuses on a romantic relationship and ends with an HEA/HFN, it’s an erotic romance, not erotica.

WTF Wednesday: What’s an Author to Do…?

…when it appears her book is sinking like a lead zeppelin?

Okay, I actually don’t have any hard and fast data on how Behind the Red Door is selling. I don’t have a subscription to Bookscan, so I can’t look it up there (and although my agent probably could, I’m not all that sure I really want to know). I did call the Ingram’s number a couple of times in the first few weeks after release (and those numbers were pretty discouraging), but now that phone number is no longer working (methinks Ingram’s has taken away that lovely free service and will replace it with something I’ll have to pay for). But the most telling statistic to me is that when I go into my local bookstores, all the copies that were shelved two weeks ago are still there. NOT a good sign!

Mind you, I don’t see this as evidence that the book itself isn’t good. I think the problems with selling it can be summed up as follows:

1. Debut author
2. Trade format (which many people don’t like/buy)
3. Relatively high cover price (related to format)
4. Not much buzz/few editorial reviews

The only one I can imagine having much impact on (as an author) is the last one, but I’ve already sent out review copies to those folks I knew about who weren’t on my publisher’s list. So far, that hasn’t produced any additional reviews. Whether that’s because the people I sent it to a) haven’t read it yet or b) didn’t feel moved to write a review after they read it, I can’t begin to guess. (Of course, it’s entirely possible that the people I sent it to read it and hated it, but I sincerely hope they wouldn’t let that stop them from reviewing it and saying so. Honestly, I can take negative reviews. I won’t go Alice Hoffman on you on Twitter or anywhere else, I promise.)

So, here’s the deal. I’ve got quite a few copies of this book lying around. I also have it in .pdf format. If you’re a reviewer or a reader/author who’d be willing to read it and register an opinion, I’ll send you a copy. Free. All I ask is that you give it a review of some kind somewhere online–good, bad, or indifferent doesn’t matter to me. Just email me (you can use the contact page if you like) and let me know what format you’d prefer. Depending on how many of you respond, I’ll select ten “winners” at random.

I’ll need to hear from you by next Monday, and (while I know there’s no way I can actually force you to do this), I’d like to see your review up by September 1. (If you know you can’t make that turnaround, just tell me in the email why not. I’m pretty flexible.)

I’m not convinced this will make the slightest bit of difference. But it can’t hurt, right? So I’m willing to give it a shot.

WTF Wednesday: How Much Honesty Is Too Much?

From authors, I mean. How much do you want authors to say about the trials and tribulations of writing and publication?

I’m actually not 100% sure this fits under the heading of “WTF Wednesday” quite as well as some of my other posts, but it’s something I’ve been wondering about lately, especially with some of these recent happenings in the writerly world:

  • Delilah Marvelle, whose publisher dropped her after two books, started a contest to encourage readers to buy her second book–out this month–in hopes of finding another publisher to finish out the series.
  • Cheryl Holt revealed on a reader forum that, after changing publishers, she’d had significant disputes with her new editor (who basically told her she didn’t know how to write) and ultimately had her contract dropped. She’s since picked up a new contract with a different publisher.
  • After initially expressing enthusiasm for the cover of her upcoming book, Justine Larbalestier admitted that she fought with her publisher over it but was ultimately overruled because the publisher apparently felt the face of a white girl would sell better even though the book is about a black girl.

These three things probably don’t seem to have much similarity to one another (the last one, in particular, evoked a real firestorm that has nothing whatsoever to do with what I’m talking about), but to me they share a common thread and that is that the author is revealing details about a dispute with her publisher. Whether that dispute is over a contract offer (or lack of one), editorial disputes, or dissension over cover art, it all comes down to authors telling us, on some level, how little control they have over the this big, complicated business we call publishing.

On some level, I’ll admit that I love to read this stuff because it makes some of my own frustrations seem less isolated and lonely. I mean, if even a New York Times bestselling author like Cheryl Holt can run into problems in publishing, it’s no great surprise that newbies like me would hit speedbumps in the road.

But on the other hand, these appeals and stories can cross they line between honesty and self-pity. I’m not saying any of these particular instances has that feel to me, but I can see how they might to others. And I wonder, in the final analysis, whether it does the author more harm than good to air her dirty laundry like this. It’s one thing to explain to readers that you are currently without a contract or that previously contracted books were ultimately shelved, but to get into the nitty-gritty of the whys and wherefores…I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Mightn’t readers think less of a writer who admits to being “down on her luck?”

At the same time, I think there’s a culture of secrecy in the publishing industry, one that discourages authors from being honest about the kinds of problems they encounter, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing, either. Surely though, more transparency in this business is better, not worse (and it’s one of the reasons I tend to post about the mechanics of publishing on a regular basis; because I think having a better understanding of how the industry works is a good thing, not a bad one).

So, what’s your take? Do readers really want to hear this stuff, or do they just want books? Do you ever think less (or more) of an author for revealing the “dirty secrets” of her experiences in publishing?